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From Barnes & NobleMore Than Words
Desi, the hero of Robert Olen Butler's surprising new novel, Mr. Spaceman, is "a seventy-eight pound Powerhouse of Strength and Vigor" with eight fingers on each hand, the eyes of a cat, and a "mouth that is thin and sinuous." On the eve of the millennium, he has been entrusted with an important task: He will descend from his ship, appear to the people of Earth, and let us know that we are not alone. He hopes that "this basic fact of things will encourage you to end your divisiveness. You are one people, all of you. We will stay away until you learn to live with each other."
"I have moved over the land and the water of this place for some years now," he tells us; he has been preparing for this mission for quite some time. His usual procedure is to beam individuals into his ship, listen to their stories, and record them "in our memory machines from where we can draw these voices back again and again, and become one with them."
One human he has "become one with" is his wife, Edna Bradshaw; a chesty and talkative divorcée from Bovary, Alabama, Edna is a primary source of the words that beset Desi. For, as he listens to the constant conversation on Earth, he finds himself "drugged by words. Hooked on them. Infected by them...made delirious by them...filled full of false and, it seems, endlessly renewable hopes for them." An interesting result of this submersion is that he often speaks in jingles: "My name is Desi. I am a friendly guy. There is a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke."
Despite his years of study, Desi is still uncertain which words will serve him when he finally makes his presence known (he erases all memory of himself from those he meets). He attempts, on the eve of the millennium, to find the answer by abducting 12 "specially chosen" people; as they ride from Texas to a night of gambling in Louisiana, he whisks their whole bus into his ship. He will pay careful attention to their stories and memories, he says, "so that I might listen for the hidden music -- a very difficult task, since the instrument of these voices is plucked only on the thin strings of words -- but I listen very closely to their voices, straining to hear in them the song of the ethos, so that I may know."
The people he's chosen make up a rich and varied chorus. A single mother who once worked for NASA; a black lawyer who believes O. J. is guilty; a young Asian couple; a former Miss Texas; a gay bus driver; a former evangelist -- at times, this begins to feel a little too much like "a small world," and occasionally the stereotypes strain. Yet Mr. Spaceman's strengths are found not in its overall structure (indeed, the scaffolding is often in the way), but in the specific memories of the humans Desi "takes inside himself." Here, the language gains strength and emotions resonate.
Among many other rich and disturbing moments, we gain access to a Vietnamese family choosing their American names, to the drowning death of one man's childhood friend, and to a World War II veteran thrown into mild posttraumatic stress syndrome while witnessing an atomic test from atop a Las Vegas casino. Desi manages, in these moments, to show us something about ourselves, to hold up a mirror to our earthly perspective. The insights he gathers are simple yet undeniable. He suggests, for instance, that we are all driven by what we cannot attain: "I am afraid that a life without yearning, which I sought, does not exist on this world."
What is most frustrating for Desi is humans' inability to communicate in any way except through the clumsiness of words. On his planet, the implicit sharing of one's unconscious is the basis for real intimacy; on Earth, this is impossible. "If there is some deep sense of an essential thing inside them," he complains of humans, "an ontological music, beyond words, beyond sounds, it is impossible for them to share it with anyone else." Yet one effect of Desi's continued contact with humans is that he seems to be undergoing something of a transformation. Not only does he suddenly gain the capacity to dream -- something his species does not do -- but he also becomes able to shed tears. This growing humanity is both a hindrance and a hope; perhaps, in helping him sympathize with human thinking, it will inform the words he will speak on the millennium.
Not surprisingly, some of his abductees cast the benevolent spaceman in the role of messiah: "One era, it's a carpenter. A whole other era, it's a spaceman." Neither Desi nor the narrative is quick to debunk this interpretation; there are, after all, 12 humans chosen to sit around the table at this last supper, a meal where Desi offers punch the color of spaceman blood, then carefully breaks one of Edna's biscuits (the humans, watching, follow his example). "Desi weeps," the narrative tells us, and one woman warns, "They will crucify you."
Mr. Spaceman, in moments like this, may stray from insightful humor into silliness, yet it nonetheless holds its own truths. In the novel's surprising conclusion, for instance, the possibility of Desi as savior is undercut while perhaps being amplified. Descending into New Year's Eve New Orleans, he finds himself among "a naked King Neptune with trident and sea shell jock strap and a man shrouded in a great, full-body rubber sheath with a French Tickler top," among others; here, hilariously, Desi blends right in. Finally, in embracing the worldly, both spaceman and novel learn that it is necessary to be human to understand humans and that the struggle of communication brings its own kind of pleasure.